I’m at the point where I tremble when Gary Minaker Russ comes to town. I know that he will have at least one outstanding piece of argillite to sell, and that if I so much as glimpse it, I will be unable to resist the temptation to buy it, even if I can’t really afford to. That’s the story, really, of “Haida Shaman,” the latest piece I’ve bought from him.
When Russ first brought it to town, he sold it to the Inuit Gallery, where I admired it regularly. But no one bought it, and Russ prefers not to have his work languish for too long in a gallery. So he swopped it for his latest piece, and when we met at the Rhizome Cafe that afternoon, he hadn’t resold it.
A quick trip across the street to the bank machine, and it was mine, the balance to be paid over the next month. One nervous Skytrain trip later, I had it beside my computer workstation.
“Haida Shaman” is a traditional piece. I mean that description in two senses, both complimentary. First, the pose is one that has been widely used throughout the hundred and eighty years of recorded argillite carving (as opposed to the unknown amount of time – decades? centuries? millennia? — that argillite may have been carved far more rarely, before it became one of the first cultural exports for the Haida).
The proportions, with the head a third of the body height, and the stance, one arm uplifted and the other in front of the chest, can be seen in any number of pictures, if you search libraries or even the Internet for pictures of argillite. So, in one sense, Russ is working in a very set subject, in much the same way a Renaissance European painter would be when painting a Madonna and child.
What you won’t see – at least today – is this pose done in the amount of detail that Russ has lavished on “Haida Shaman.” You’ll see the basic proportion and posture, yes, but not the detail. Most modern argillite carving is closer to engraving. It is covered with embellishments of inlaid precious and semi-precious stones, with the shapes hinted at rather than fully developed.
In several pieces, the result is so abstract that only the posture is recognizable and there is little else to indicate that a shaman is depicted. The modern argillite market does not reward taking pains, and, in too many cases, the quality of the carving has declined while the cost of the raw materials have sent the prices soaring.
By contrast, “Haida Shaman” shows the attention to detail that I associate more with nineteenth century argillite pieces. Russ himself describes it as being more in his original – and preferred – style, and not the simpler style he has moved towards in the last decade and a half in order to make a living as an artist in an increasingly obscure art form.
This is the second sense in which the piece is traditional – in the pure sense of craft that has gone into it. For a style that is only partly representational, “Haida Shaman” packs an extraordinary amount of detail. Some of it may be hard to see in a picture, but the carving is full of realistic detail like the definition of the muscles on the arms, or the braiding of the rope the shaman wears, or the mass of hair in his topknot. I joke that the sculpture is a “traditional Haida action figure,” but behind that rather flippant comment, there is nothing but respect for the care that has gone into it.
These details are enhanced by the sparing use of ivory to contrast with the darkness of the argillite. Unlike many modern argillite carvers, Russ has not produced a gaudy piece, valued largely for its inlays. Nor has he added so many inlays before starting to carve that they get in the way of the detailing. Instead, the ivory appears where it doesn’t hide or overwhelm the details. It is used sparingly, with a restraint that allows it to work with the argillite, rather than against it.
You might say that “Haida Shaman” is an artist’s piece, done to satisfy Russ’ sense of how he should be working, with little regard for what sells. I am not in the least surprised that it didn’t sell while on display because, amid the other argillite extravaganzas available in the local galleries, “Haida Shaman” is an understated piece, with an emphasis on the craft of carving.
It’s because of pieces like “Haida Shaman” that I secretly look forward to Russ’ visits to town, not knowing what wonders he will quietly unwrap to tempt me with. I only know that most of what he brings to town will be wonders, and I will be tempted to bring at least one of them home.
Now, if I only didn’t have to explain that I wasn’t buying from a drug dealer when I deposit large sums of cash in his account, I would have nothing to complain about. I am both soothed and honoured to have pieces like “Haida Shaman” in my townhouse.